- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2024

First Baptist Church of Alexandria, one of the nation’s oldest Southern Baptist congregations, faces expulsion for having a woman pastor.

Kim Eskridge, pastor for children and women, “is among our longest-tenured staff being in this position with this title for nearly 20 years,” First Baptist said in a statement.

But the Southern Baptist Convention of late has cracked down on congregations that have flouted its ban on female pastors, as spelled out in its 2000 doctrinal statement, the “Baptist Faith & Message.”

“While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture,” the statement reads.

Delegates from First Baptist could be barred from participating next month in the SBC’s annual business meeting in Indianapolis, further alienating the 221-year-old congregation.

Neither Ms. Eskridge nor the Rev. Robert Stephens, First Baptist’s senior pastor, responded to repeated requests for comment.

The SBC Credentials Committee, a volunteer panel that would vote on seating delegates at the business meeting, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Southern Baptists have been pushed into deciding such issues because of a 2023 constitutional amendment proposed by the Rev. Mike Law Jr., senior pastor of Arlington Baptist Church, also in Northern Virginia. That amendment was approved at last year’s SBC meeting, and if adopted this year, it would bind congregations to having only men in pastoral positions.

Mr. Stephens acknowledged in a 2023 video message that if the Law proposal is affirmed next month, it “would put First Baptist Church of Alexandria in disfellowship,” despite the church’s longtime relationship with the denomination. He noted that in 2022 the Alexandria congregation had given “over $1.3 million to the Southern Baptist Convention in an effort to contribute to the work of the convention to advance the gospel to the ends of the earth.”

“For 179 years, First Baptist Church and the Southern Baptist Convention have been faithful partners in ministry,” the church wrote in a May 6 letter to the SBC’s Credentials Committee. “While we understand the Convention’s desire to ensure faithfulness, we also ask that the Convention respect the long-standing principle of autonomy that allows each church to determine its leadership, bylaws, statement of faith, and with whom to partner.”

First Baptist follows the June 2023 expulsions of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, the denomination’s then-largest congregation, and Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky — both for having women in pastoral roles.

Reaction to First Baptist’s possible expulsion is already mounting. The Rev. Chris Davis of the Groveton Baptist Church, also in Alexandria, said in a post on X that the situation involving Mr. Stephens’ church is prompting his congregation to exit the 12.9 million member denomination. The SBC acknowledged in 2022 hundreds of past sexual abuse cases and promised to take steps to protect members and punish perpetrators.

“The primary reason I am leaving the SBC [is] because leaders in high places have consistently worked against abuse reform, while a church is about to be disfellowshipped for having a female Pastor to Children and Women. The priorities could not be more opposed to the way of Jesus,” Mr. Davis wrote.

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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